In the opening chapter of David Benioff’s novel City of Thieves, a screenwriter named David beseeches his Russian-born grandfather to tell him about his experiences during the siege of Leningrad during World War II. The old man complies, and a novel is born. Or is it?
See, David Benioff is indeed an American-born screenwriter of Russian descent. Could this improbable story of a knife-wielding Russian patriot be true?
“Coincidence … contrivance,” the author insists. Okay, I’ll go along. But did I mention the protagonist’s name in Lev Beniov? Come on, David, you’re toying with me.
Fact, fiction, fantasy, or flim-flam, City of Thieves deserves to be at the top of your short list of novels you’ve missed. Published in 2008, this New York Times Bestseller still hasn’t gained the readership nor the renown it deserves.
Once past the charming, if cryptic, opening chapter, we are transported to Leningrad just after New Years 1942, where seventeen-year-old Lev Beniov informs us ‘You have never been so hungry; you have never been so cold.’ A few short pages later we are famished and shivering and scanning the black night sky for German bombers.
But this is a modern Russian—Soviet—tale full of the traditional humor and irony you’d expect, yet blessedly lacking in the prosaic extravagance associated with bearded authors of another Russian age. Benioff is a modern writer, with an ear for tradition, but a screenwriter’s sensibilities for precision and propulsion.
Before you can spell Dostoyevsky young, self-doubting Lev and a stout, Slavic stranger named Kolya, are plucked from the ‘enemy of the state’ execution line and recruited for a mission to procure the dozen fresh eggs necessary to bake a wedding cake. Absurd? Not to a Russian boy already sentenced to die.
The starving Lev and Kolya, the stout, more experienced Slav, set off on their quest to find a dozen fresh eggs along a countryside so choked by the fascists that cannibalism has become a gruesome industry. Gallows humor abounds. But this is Russia, no matter what the Politburo insists on calling it, and writers have been wringing poignancy out of deprivation for centuries. Benioff is true to his heritage. Horror and humor cuddle side by side in this achingly human story of friendship and survival.
This is one of those books that begs to be read twice. The plot, the action, the struggle—even the cold—propel us to turn the pages. We become involved. We care. We actually shiver. We pang for a blackened potato, or half an onion, or bread almost certainly made from sawdust.
But on the second reading, we can stop to savor the poetry. The ironies that lie hidden behind the need to survive. All for a dozen eggs. All for a wedding cake. All in the shadow of Leningrad, and one of the bleakest chapters mankind has ever written.
City of Thieves is an American novel in the same way some vodkas are American. Take that for what it’s worth.
If you missed this novel in 2008, put it on your short list of books to catch up on.
City of Thieves
By David Benioff
Originally published by Viking
Available in paperback from Plume
editor's note: All reviews are the sole opinion of the author. They are not an endorsement by Page & Spine. -NKW
ABOUT LEE ALLEN HILL
STORIES BY LEE ALLEN HILL
POEMS BY LEE ALLEN HILL
ESSAYS BY LEE ALLEN HILL
CRUMBS BY LEE ALLEN HILL
Recently I had two pieces of writing accepted and published. Neither was brilliant, nor will likely last in the minds of readers after the next issue, but someone is trying to pay me for my words. It’s not a lot of money, but that doesn’t matter. The point is that someone is trying to pay me for that which I’ve always given away.
Some people would jump up and down and consider it a sign of a budding career, a payback for a nurtured dream, but for me, it meant something different. As best I can, I’ll try to explain my reaction.
Many years ago, while attending my first writing course at a community college, one of the assignments was to write an essay of less than five hundred words about a place we’d visited and what it meant to the writer. I wrote about Venice. I described the opulent upper floors of the buildings we passed as I rode the ferry down the Grand Canal. I made a point of talking about the foundations that were rotting below water after five hundred years of being submerged, while the people upstairs were filling their lives with accessories to impress the travellers who could only dream about living in one of the canal-side mansions.
When I finished reading this to the class—a most detestable part of the course, this ego driven use of time—the instructor stopped the flow and screamed at me—literally, she screamed.
She told me to quit my day job and decide—she emphasized the word decide--to be a writer. She went on to tell me that she raised four children on money she earned from writing.
“Until you put it all on the line, you’ll never know how good you are.”
Its not that I’ve never been paid before, I have, but I’ve never held the check in my hands.
The first time I was asked to write a letter to the editor for a very dear friend who was dying of ovarian cancer. She wanted to thank her employer for his support for her during treatments that caused prolonged absences from her work. The company she worked for had a reputation for its severity in treating its employees with harsh repercussions for any shift from company policy. She wanted to dispel any negative opinions about their reputation and asked me to write a letter to the editor of a well-read trade magazine.
I hated her company—with a passion and I had every reason for my feelings. But, my friend asked me to do it and I did.
I listened as she poured her heart out about every kindness they’d extended and then I translated it into a written letter to the editor. When it was published, the reaction from the industry was immediate and intense. The owners got phone calls from customers who apologized and said they’d misjudged their policies and pledged their support in future business dealings.
When she could no longer work--long after her disability insurance ran out, the company continued to pay her salary—at full pop. When she died, the company chartered a bus and allowed employees to attend her funeral, covering their salaries for the time out of the office.
Most people who knew my friend well, questioned her ability to author the letter, but it was signed by her and reflected every emotion she expressed to me on that painful afternoon when we sat together .I honoured my friend and while my writing never resulted in a royalty cheque and I never—not ever—admitted any participation in her words, I got paid. Sometimes words can be squandered and occasionally they will earn dignity.
Even now, many years later, I knew the teacher who told me I was a writer couldn’t make me believe that my words had any value, but Ivana did, and her legacy to me was the knowledge that sometimes words can make a difference.
ESSAYS BY INGRID THOMSON
**Note: If you are a computer whiz kid, skip the first couple of paragraphs. But, if like me, you have a love/hate relationship with your computer, keep reading. Yes, I know it’s only a tool. The results are only as good as the fingers touching the keyboard. But, there are times when I swear it’s out to get me. I think I’ve written one thing and then it disappears into the wireless atmosphere. The reason I bring this up is to help those computer challenged individuals like myself, save time and frustration.
I used to write all my work in longhand. Even my first novel was done the old-fashioned way with a pencil and a legal pad. Of course, it was a sea of arrows, cross-outs, and tiny re-writes. A friend convinced me to compose on-line. My second novel, the one I just completed, was done on the computer. There were a couple problems, I had written each chapter in a separate file. Do you see where I’m going here? When I was finished, I had to cut and paste all the individual ones into one file. Wouldn’t you know it; I had used different font styles and sizes, too. So I had to make those changes. Learn from my mistakes and avoid the temptation to throw your “friend” against the nearest wall. Take the time and energy to learn how to use this tool and call a peace treaty with your computer.**
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
First, a quick review of Part 1; your masterpiece is complete, your heart and soul is there for everyone to read, all you need to do is edit. Edit, the very word strikes fear. So, how do you use that fear to your advantage.
~ ~ ~ ~ ~
As I looked deep inside my own fear, an image came to mind. I saw a surfer standing on a beach, board in hand, waiting for that perfect wave. His eyes search every swell as it comes toward him. No, not that one, it’s too small. Another one crashes too violently against the sand; it will certainly tow him under. He stands and waits.
Guess what? There is no perfect wave. He will stand there in the sun, watching for an opportunity that has already passed him by. To surf, you have to jump in the water, stand upright on your board, and let the waves take you. So it is the same with writing or in this case, editing.
Shortly after writing Part I, I did jump in the water. I picked up my book and began reading it with a critical eye. Within the first few pages, I saw many errors and things that didn’t sound right. It quickly became apparent that one of the main characters, a young girl with Asperger’s Syndrome (it’s on the high end of the autism spectrum) needed a major personality change. Not only would these changes mean tons of re-writes, but more research. The deeper I got into my book, the more I wanted to re-do. Was this the same novel I was so satisfied with a few weeks ago? How could I have been so sure of myself and my work and now view it totally different? The answer was fairly simple. I am not the same person or writer who began the book.
I would imagine most novels take months, if not years, to finish. So it was with “The F.N.B.”; my novel about a middle-school student with autism. I began my research last spring. Even though I have spent thirty plus years as a special education teacher, I knew little about the autism spectrum. Here’s where synchronicity came into play. That fall, I was asked to work one-on-one with a severely autistic young man. Thank goodness the school system had hired a brilliant consultant with years of experience. She would be my guide into the world of autism. I would learn a whole new skill set in helping this young man grow from having few communication skills and violent reactions into a student who lets us know his wants and needs. We are looking at expanding his hours at school and involvement with other students. I tell you this to illustrate my point, that I am not the same person who began or even finished my novel.
So of course there would have to be major changes. I understand more, I feel more, I see more. Where the character with Asperger’s was one dimensional, I can now bring her to life. I have experienced the fear and prejudice the autistic and their families’ deal with all the time. I have witnessed amazing moments of understanding gained by my student and set-backs of the frustrating inability to communicate. I know now what it means to be autistic. I repeat: I am not the same person who began my novel.
I have made quite a bit of progress with the editing. It’s not complete and will not be for some time. I believe it will be time well spent. It will not be exactly the same novel that I started last spring; hopefully it will be a more true depiction of those who live with autism. It will also be a clearer representation of the person, the writer, I am today.
Here’s food for thought: before you begin the “simple task” of editing your masterpiece, ask yourself something: are you the same person who wrote those first or last words?
Probably not, so be prepared to be a different writer. I’ll keep you up-to-date on my transformation.
ABOUT DJS HARRINGTON
POEMS BY DJS HARRINGTON
ESSAYS BY DJS HARRINGTON
Consider this a lament. No, make that, a low, gutteral moan of grief. Yes, I am in continual mourning for the short-lived short-story writers’ heyday associated with pulp fiction magazines—cheap, monthly or bi-monthly publications that used to stuff newsstand and drug store racks from sea to shining sea, and all the less sparkly spots in between.
My sorrow, I admit, is largely of the self-pitying variety. You see, I write short fiction, and nobody produces short fiction anymore. Well, almost nobody—if you don’t count tax returns.
From the turn of the twentieth century to the mid 1950s, hundreds of publishers of pulp fiction magazines peddled thousands of short stories and serialized novels crammed between lurid, stylized covers that tantalized readers with promises of action, adventure, violence, and often, sex … opiates of the masses. And America bought up these compendiums by the millions—every month. A cheap, legal addiction.
Often sold for as little as a dime per issue, pulp magazines became one of America’s first truly mass entertainment mediums. Hundreds of titles, millions of copies, millions of hooked readers—good news for the publishers, right? Of course. But publishers needed product to publish, so the pulps were a godsend for legions of struggling writers who churned out these stories at an amazing clip.
But don’t get the wrong idea. When I say ‘churned out’ I’m not talking about shlock here. Okay, maybe some shlock. But …
The list of writers who got their start writing for the pulps, or augmented their more respectable incomes with pulp submissions constitutes a bona fide Who’s Who of twentieth century American fiction writers. Icons like F. Scott Fitzgerald, O. Henry, Erle Stanley Gardner, Raymond Chandler, Dashiell Hammett agreed to write for a penny a word tapping out works for titles like Argosy, Dime Detectives, Adventure, Black Mask and hundreds of other newsstand standbys. Sure, not many got rich writing for a penny a word, but by writing under several aliases, prolific short story writers always had a hungry market ready to gobble up their work. It is commonly reported that Upton Sinclair—yes, that Upton Sinclair—utilized stenographers and dictated at least 8,000 words a day for the pulps—seven days a week. That amounted to a pretty penny back when ten cents bought you a shot and beer, eh, Upton?
And it didn’t much matter what a writer wanted to write, either. There were pulp titles catering to all tastes (or what we call genres, today). Romance; Western; Sports; War. Guys like H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs wrote for titles catering to lovers of ‘lost world’ adventures. Hammett, Chandler, and Gardner specialized in hardboiled crime noir. Philip K. Dick, Robert Hienlein, Ray Bradbury used the pulps to help instill the world’s unquenchable thirst for Science Fiction.
It was a golden time for short story writers, and for readers who favored their fiction in smaller bites.
Hollywood took notice, too. Hundreds of films produced in the 30s and 40s where based on pulp stories. Maybe you’ve heard of The Maltese Falcon? As a result, many pulp writers branched off into screenwriting, as well. I’m telling you, it was high cotton time for short-story writers who knew their way around a classy dame, a cigarette, and a hot Underwood.
And then, like the twist at the end of a good who-dun-it, the rug got pulled out from under the entire cast. And money was motive here, too—big surprise. Follow the money, right Sam Spade?
By the time the 50s rolled around, the cost of publishing pulps had shot up higher than a snooty skirt’s nose, and readership had sagged like her granny’s WWII nylons. Slicker magazines, flashier films, and the spread of television sets all bit big chunks out of America’s pulpy attention span. The end of America’s love affair with short, entertaining fiction had taken the deep-six.
Many of the well-established writers switched over to the new ‘paperback’ novel venue, so they did okay. Cinema and television drama anthologies provided a soft landing for some of the other scribblers who had cut their teeth on wood pulp. But the Golden Age of the American short-story burned out when the cost of pulp got too high, and the price of more animated forms of entertainment got too cheap.
And here I am, still moaning.
Hey, buddy, what to buy a short story? Still just a penny-a-word—adjusted for inflation.
ABOUT LEE ALLEN HILL
STORIES BY LEE ALLEN HILL
POEMS BY LEE ALLEN HILL
ESSAYS BY LEE ALLEN HILL
CRUMBS BY LEE ALLEN HILL